With the success of the toyline, a hit cartoon, and a slew of other merchandise, the franchise had no choice but to try and make more money off of a live-action film. This muscle-bound movie didn’t hit quite in the height of He-Mania, but a year after the action figure sales plummeted. It was a troubled production, not well-received at the time of its release in 1987, and barely given a chance to make an impression, but it’s another gem that was always destined to become a cult classic, adored by fans and respected for what it accomplished under the conditions. Doomed from the moment Cannon Films took the property and deemed their project the “Star Wars of the 1980s,” there was little hope for Masters of the Universe: The Motion Picture. But was the movie honestly that bad, or just a smear campaign from Skeletor to hide his most embarrassing defeat?
No one will ever claim that Masters of the Universe is some sort of amazing film, but it is better than most seem to remember. It was an odd choice not to put “He-Man” in the title, but Masters of the Universe is an awesome phrase and it helps allow the script to focus on a few other characters as well. Compared to the cartoon, He-Man takes on a lesser role, and we never see his Prince Adam persona or the King and Queen at all. This may have been a good thing for those who weren’t a fan of that side of the hero, but most agree that the exclusion led to one of the biggest letdowns in the entire movie, not seeing his iconic transformation. There is the energetic moment towards the end where he lifts the sword up high and says that he has the power, but was that enough?
There’s A Reason Why It’s a Cult Classic
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Masters of the Universe: The Motion Picture is not a good adaptation of the cartoon, but that’s okay – it’s still fantastic. This is a classic story of good versus evil, the fight against Skeletor to stop his ascension, but a MacGuffin in the form of a synthesizer is going to cause a detour through Earth before that can happen. We excuse that because the 1980s made this okay and other worlds may not rely on a standard number or letter system for their technology. Every fan was bummed that there wasn’t more Eternia, especially after seeing Castle Greyskull in such a glorious form, but the cartoon set up much of this, like having his mother be an astronaut from Earth and those kids in the Christmas special. The original script would have been closer to the show, kept the audience in Eternia longer, and included more fan-favorite characters, but the Earth storyline was still there. Speaking of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe show, some familiarity with this or the toyline’s backstory is almost required, as the movie doesn’t explain much past the new elements it throws in and begins this tale in the middle – in a crazy way.
Skeletor has won, essentially. Our skull-faced fiend is out in full force. He’s scattered the heroes, captured the Sorceress, and now occupies Castle Greyskull. The bad guy has almost achieved all of his goals and a timer has been set for when he’ll have the power he seeks. It’s a spectacular intro. The opening and ending of the movie are phenomenal, but new characters had to be introduced and the entire thing couldn’t take place inside the castle, no matter how cool that set was. Enter Gwildor: an inventor who made the MacGuffin and was manipulated by Evil-Lyn, which is how the bad guys got the upper hand. Played by Billy Barty (Willow), and acting as a replacement for Orko, he has his odd moments, but Gwildor is much less annoying. There are several henchmen sent after the group of heroes, many of which are new – the coolest of which they regret having Skeletor kill off early – and all of them look incredible. Mattel wanted their old characters in the film – originally the company wanted twenty-six in total – but also wanted new creations that they could make money off of as well. It’s a miracle this wasn’t even more crowded.
Frank Langella Steals the Film
After this entertaining setup for the conflict, we meet Julie Winston, played by a pre-Friends Courteney Cox (Misfits of Science), and her nearly-dumped boyfriend, portrayed by Robert Duncan McNeill (Star Trek: Voyager). These two normal people who are about to be thrown into a strange adventure aren’t completely useless and are, thankfully, easy to like. Most of their worse bits come from bad writing. Potentially the most egregious moment of the film is when Evil-Lyn disguises herself as Julie’s dead mother to get the key. The story shows how the baddies knew about her dead parents, and that does give Julie some cheap character development, but why did she fall for this trick so easily? On the other hand, it was a treat to see them use another tactic other than force, like when they use the collar to interrogate Kevin.
There are some excellent small bits of acting here, befitting the genre, even if the cheesiness is always looming. These examples are wrapped in wonderful character moments between pairs like Teela (Chelsea Field, The Last Boyscout) and Man-At-Arms (Jon Cyphyer, Major Dad) or Skeletor and Evil Lyn (Meg Foster, They Live). The film has a superb instance between those two where the lack of trust and romance they share are both hinted at, alluding back to some clues from the cartoon. This is paralleled against the chemistry Julie and He-Man share, which feels genuinely kind and caring.
Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV) took on the role of He-Man in Masters of the Universe: The Motion Picture, as he looked like a living action figure already. This was his third film and the first time he’d be in a leading role. At this point, he was still lacking that screen confidence and working with his accent. Dolph’s performance was almost dubbed over because of this, but thanks to some wording in his contract and Cannon not wanting to follow through, this never happened. The strange accent always seemed somewhat appropriate, him being an alien and all. He put a lot into the role, even doing his own fight scenes and stunts, but some still blamed Lundgren on the film’s failure. Dolph didn’t enjoy the work then and he called it his least favorite role a few times, but as he got further away from the movie, he seems to defend it more and even expressed interest in potentially having a role in the reboot. The work was hard, but it looks as if the actor enjoyed being He-Man.
The real star of the project is Frank Langella (The Americans), who took the role because of his four-year-old being a huge fan of the cartoon. He still offers it up as one of his favorite roles and breathed a new life into the villain, giving him a Shakespearian flair and improvising some lines, even if they are hammed up a bit. Instead of the muscular figure from the cartoon – which Langella was prepared to play, being in shape at the time – the studio saw him as a scarier and menacing character, even under several layers of makeup and unflattering gold armor, which Langella made sing. His presence helped define the movie and his image is burned into the minds of many young fans.
The visuals still hold up, showing strong signs of that Jack Kirby influence with hints of the original Frank Frazetta inspirations from the toys. There were some gorgeous matte paintings done for the film, a strategic use of miniatures – though some were apparently recycled from Blade Runner and Ghostbusters – while costumes and makeup did their best to create memorable characters. None of this should be particularly surprising as early concept designs were done by comics legend Moebius and finished by the talented Production Designer, William Stout. It’s one of the better aspects of the movie and helps it last, but it’s hard to say the same for the action scenes.
Much of the effects of energy, lightning, damage, and the struggle between the characters still look incredible, but any close scrutiny of the choreography can be troubling. There are a lot of clunky swings, quick cuts, and close-ups to piece together some of the combat. Much of this could be blamed on the budget cuts and lack of time, but the costumes were a problem also.
Beast Man looked brutal and his lack of a voice portrayed him as more savage, hearing his growls as he threw Kevin around, but the man in the suit kept fainting from the heat the costume generated, and filming on sets with no air conditioning couldn’t have been easy. Other attires, like Evil-Lyn’s, weighed tremendous amounts, restricted mobility, and even left contusions on some of the actors. There were also performers that had to wear elaborate headgear or contacts that forced them to perform fights and stunts blind, increasing the chance of injuries.
Masters of the Universe: The The Motion Picture’s Troubled Production
Cannon struggled to find funding for the movie, for the marketing, and this is after Mattel had already provided a large chunk of the cash. It’s even rumored that the toy company paid to make sure the feature could have a proper premiere. The lack of budget heavily affected the project, as they were originally going to shoot in Iceland and didn’t even hire extras for many of the scenes, giving the streets an empty feeling. According to the Power of Greyskull documentary, characters like Orko and Battle Cat were wanted in the film, but also fell victim to the budget and difficulty behind doing them in live-action. Filming was actually shut down by Mattel toward the end because of how much money they were spending and the last fight scene in the dark was a cost-cutting measure so it could be finished offsite by a small team, meaning that the audience never got to see the full size and glory of the Castle Greyskull sets or much of the ending they had planned.
There were other troubles as well. Supposedly while shooting the scene in the gym, the fire got out of hand and almost burned down the school, while one of the storefronts was heavily damaged in a later scene. There were even issues with composing the movie’s score, as told by Bill Conti’s notes in the album. A contest was held for a fan to be in the film, but this was under prosthetics that hurt him when removed, and his part was incredibly brief, as filming was well underway. This winner was made the character of “Pigboy,” who hands Skeletor his staff in one scene, and that’s all he gets. Much of the merchandise suffered as well, as the video game, Masters of the Universe: The Movie, was a lackluster title that suffered from a quick development time, and not many action figures were made for the movie either; an odd choice for a toy company that most likely didn’t want to remember the movie any more than they had to.
The post-credits scene is still one of the best parts of the movie, especially since we had to sit through the way too happy ending scene of Julie being sent back in time to save her parents. Skeletor may have been defeated and thrown down a seemingly infinite hole, but he climbs back up at the end to scare us one last time, threatening his return. That almost happened too, as there was going to be a sequel, without Lundgren, back on an apocalyptic Earth, and featuring She-Ra (who was cut out of the first film during the scripting process). Not all of the ideas presented sounded promising, like Skeletor posing as a businessman named Aaron Dark, but a lot of that would have hopefully been weeded out before production began. Ever the opportunist, Cannon Films didn’t want to waste costumes and sets from the sequel – and some from the Spider-Man movie they almost made – so all of that was put with a new script to make a little Jean-Claude Van Damme project named Cyborg. So, at least something good came out of that.
Maters of the Universe: The Motion Picture will never be called a masterpiece, but it is still better put together and presented than many other projects from Cannon Films and a ton of other schlock in the genre that doesn’t have half the passion it does. The creators of the He-Man line have never been pleased with the depictions of their property, whether it be the childish cartoon or dysfunctional movie, but the Masters of the Universe film presented its own version of the He-Man mythos, fought against the odds, embraces its shortcomings, and was prepared to live or die by the Power Sword.